The Western Conference is a muddled place this season. The Central Division gets stronger and stronger, the Northwest was weak last season and saw some improvement, and the Pacific Division is still a two-horse race. There are 11 teams that wouldn't be a surprise to see in the playoffs, and eight teams that could conceivably win a round or two! The East is full of mediocre teams that will be easy pickings for wins. The West, however, has very few easy games. This is how the West will be won this season.
The Colorado Avalanche had a brutal season last year; not enough has changed to not expect that again. With the addition of Matt Duchene, this team has a brilliant future at center—Sakic, Forsberg, and now Statsny and Duchene. It will be a few years before this comes to fruition, but it is a great start. There are several other good young pieces littered throughout the organization: The addition of Craig Anderson could be a great pick up and the Ryan Smyth trade brings in some needed help on the blue line. Despite the potential for this team, it will be a learning year in Denver. Another top five pick definitely won't hurt their chances for the next few years, though.
Phoenix doesn't have much of a hope this season. Dealing with the ownership battle hampered any attempts to bring in free agents. The players will be wondering if they will be in Hamilton, Kansas City, Moscow, or Hong Kong and the pressure to succeed has nothing to do with what happens on the ice, but how many fans it can bring in to prove it has a fan base. This is all a shame, because with Shane Doan leading the team and some great young players figuring out their NHL game, the 'Yotes have some potential to make some noise in the coming seasons. Players such as Mueller and Turris have the potential to be exciting and captivating players that draw the attention of both casual and hardcore fans alike, and a few winning seasons could change the culture in the desert ( or Ontario, or Russia, or China, or Vietnam, or North Korea, or wherever they end up).
The weakest team in the Central Division, the Preds have to play the Wings and the Hawks a total of 12 times and the Blues and Jackets another 12. Every inter-division game is against a team that made the playoffs, and that leaves the Preds in the exact same position they were last season: out of the playoffs. Nashville needs to go .500 in those 24 games to have a shot at the playoffs and that doesn't seem likely.
The Los Angeles Kings are going to be a better team this year than last year. So why do I have them moving only two spots up in the standings? The defense is led by a 19-year-old and a 22-year-old, the Kings have four goaltenders in camp, and the scorers can't seem to get consistent. If one of the following happens, this team will be in the thick of the race for most of the season: defense becomes more seasoned, a starting goaltender emerges, or the top forwards step up. If two of those things happen, this is a team that will compete right up to the playoffs for that final spot and if all three of those things happen, this team will be right in the thick of the playoffs. This is a team I expect to prove me wrong, but there are too many ifs to justify a jump.
The Oilers needed to add more. They replaced a 40 year old goalie with a 36 year old goalie, and while Khabibulin is an upgrade, he also started last season on waivers. The biggest change will be behind the bench, and expect the young players to develop better now and perform better. Any improvement from this team will have to come from within.
The Dallas Stars had a terrible year last season and rebounded relatively well. They will compete for a playoff spot and be a hard team to play against next year, but they are just not there yet to be considered ahead of some of the other teams.
Columbus finally made it to the big dance last year, and congratulations to them for it. They rode a hot goaltender, a good but star-less defense, and the will of Nash to drag them to the promised land. However, the Central Division is one of the best in the League for a reason (second only to the Atlantic Division) and the Blue Jackets will have to work even harder this season to get there. Can Steve Mason repeat his performance from last season? He will have to if the Jackets are to make it. It will be close—maybe even one shoot-out away—but the Jackets will be on the outside looking in this season.
Minnesota came within a few points last season of making the playoffs despite not having its best player for the majority of the season. With Marion Gaborik gone and Martin Havlat in, the Wild get a slightly more durable player with the huge amount of talent that he can contribute. Minnesota has some star players that will continue to develop and will be a tough team to play against next season. They will make the playoffs.
With the Pronger trade, the Ducks are a different sort of team. They are no longer the beat you on the ice, beat you in the face team that won the Cup in 2007. Instead, they are more of a finesse team that will still beat you on the ice. With the continued development of the top line of Perry, Getzlaf, and Ryan, it is scary to think that Getzlaf is one of the top centers in the game and is years away from his prime.
With the Sedins resigned and a Roberto Luongo extension forthcoming, this team is ready to compete. Also, with the recent additions of Schneider, Erhoff, and Lukowich, the Canucks got deeper on the back end as well. However, every team in the Northwest Division got stronger this year, and the loss of Ohlund is big compared to the additions, so the Canucks will only tread water. They will be good and will compete with the Flames for the division, but they won't do much more than that.
The Blues made it to the playoffs last season on the strength of their goaltender and a brilliant run from the All-Star game to the end of the season. They did this with two of their best forwards injured for huge chunks of the year. Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald figure to improve a team that was already improving and give the Blues the boost they need to play competitively in the Playoffs instead of getting swept. The Blues will be a sleeper team to pull off an upset for sure.
The Red Wings will not be as affected by all the changes as people think. They will still be brutally good, they will still cause plenty of problems for every team that plays them, and everyone will be jealous that they pay their goaltender less than $2 million a year to win them at least three rounds in the playoffs. However, they are looking vulnerable for the first time in a while. Lidstrom is getting older as is Osgood, and that magic that seems to infect them in the postseason may be fading. Never count out the Wings, but fourth is where I see them.
While the 'Hawks may have some work to do finding a way to deal with the cap next season, there is no doubt that these guys will be deadly on the ice. Adding Marian Hossa to this attack seems totally unfair and the young guns will make even more strides this season. With all that in mind, third place seems fair when one considers Cristobal Huet has never played more than 52 games in a season and was beat out for the position by a 36-year-old placed on waivers early in the season. A tough division and suspect goaltending will be obstacles, but this team will compete for the Stanley Cup—just not as the No. 1 seed.
The Flames' addition of Jay Bouwmeester gives them the best defense in the West, if not the league, and Brent Sutter should get the best out of the Flames. Count on Dion Phaneuf having a great season, Miikka Kiprusoff standing tall in goal, and a full season of Olli Jokinen should offset the loss of Cammalleri. The Flames look very dangerous this season—a Stanley Cup contender for sure.
The Sharks seem to be made for the regular season. They always perform very well and if they manage to get Dany Heatley, a Thorton-Heatley duo sounds terrifying. San Jose will play great, the Shark Tank will be rocking, and with goaltending, defense, and offense being well looked after, this is a team without any glaring weaknesses. A first-place finish is probable, but the playoffs seem to be another beast entirely.